Amidst an onslaught of bills filed by rural legislators intent on killing high-speed rail in Texas, there is a smattering of positive freight and passenger rail bills filed this session in Austin.
Rep. Mando Martinez (D-Weslaco) laid out HB 71 in the House Transportation committee which would create a regional transit authority in the Rio Grande Valley. There was only positive testimony, all referencing the millions of trips taken and explosive growth in this corridor. Rep. Martinez reminded everyone that the House passed this bill last session, but it never made it out of the Senate. It was left pending in committee (which is normal when a bill is first laid out) but it is likely that it will be voted out of committee favorably and head to the full House. The RTA would be granted the power of eminent domain and authority to issue bonds and charge fees. "Regional high capacity transit" as named in the bill means intercity transit service designed to transport more people than typical, local fixed-route bus service by using dedicated lanes or rights-of-way or by having transit priority, including queue jumps or traffic signal priority. The term includes bus rapid transit, light rail, commuter rail, streetcars, high occupancy toll lanes, or other fixed guideway operations.
Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) filed a Senate bill (SB1080) and Senate Joint Resolution (SJR45) that proposes a constitutional amendment to allow the expenditure of a portion of motor fuel taxes and registration fees for passenger rail and transit. Net revenues from motor vehicle registrations, motor fuels and lubricants for motor vehicles would also be used for the purpose of constructing, maintaining and operating passenger rail and transit. Part of the proceeds would be directed to the Available School Fund. If passed by the House and Senate voters would decide this issue on November 5, 2019.
Watson also filed SB 1073 through 1078 for multiple options to fund the transformation of Interstate 35 in Travis County, deemed one of the state's worst traffic nightmares.
Representative Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin) filed House bill 1068 which calls for strategies for railroad relocation and improvement, including a franchise tax credit for certain railroad reconstruction or replacement expenditures. It allows a tax credit for infrastructure improvements on Class II and Class III railroads (short lines). In addition, Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) and Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin) filed HB 2561 and SB 1136, respectively. These bills are identical and would make it easier for a fixed rail transit system in certain rapid transit authorities to expand. When these bills will be assigned and heard in committee is yet to be determined. The Senate Transportation committee had its first hearing last Wednesday. It was organizational in nature and they heard invited testimony only from TxDoT, DMV, and DPS. It closely mirrored the invited testimony of the first House Transportation committee meeting, as the witnesses were the same.